The new musical If/Then, by the same creative team that brought us the prize winning Next To Normal five years ago, is once again an imaginative and impressive piece of work.
Written by Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics), directed by Michael Greif, it once again tells the story of a woman searching for herself, a woman facing difficult choices as she tries to meld her desires for a home, a family, a career and most important, a sense of self worth .
“Elizabeth” is the woman’s name, and she’s played by the popular Idina Menzel, who burst into stardom along with her co-star Kristin Chenowith in the blockbuster Wicked, in which she scored heavily as the Wicked Witch of the West, the one who got to stop the show singing what became a sort of anthem for teen age girls, “Defying Gravity”.
Messrs. Kitt and Yorkey have fashioned If/Then around Ms. Menzel, creating a character who must choose at “almost 40” between roads of life, and she spends the evening speculating “what if” she had chosen one or another of these available roads. To populate their story, they have invented “Lucas” and “Josh”, as suitors, and a number of close friends, particularly a neighbor called “Kate” plus her boss, “Stephen” with whom she’d gone to college. The time is “the recent past” and the story is set in “Madison Square Park and all around New York City.”
So what we have is an urban tale with a very now leading lady, a sort of 21st Century version of Moss Hart’s Lady in the Dark, another Elizabeth (“Liza Elliot”) who was created in 1940 with very much the same sort of identity crisis. In Moss Hart’s play his lady works her way through it with help from a psychiatrist, which was the way to go in that era. The Elizabeth of If/Then is “Beth” on one of her paths and “Liz” on the other. If this all sounds a bit confusing, well — it is. The Beth side of her becomes involved with her best friend Lucas, beautifully played by Anthony Rapp, who loves her but is more attracted to David, and he ultimately settles with him. The Liz side has a chance meeting with a soldier named Josh and that develops into a relationship as well.
But bad luck interferes and it takes most of the musical to bring Liz/Beth/Elizabeth to some sort of understanding of herself, and at the final curtain she is ready to meet a stranger in the park with whom she might at last find a good life. It worked in another musical of the forties, One Touch of Venus (in that case it was a Goddess who had to learn she couldn’t mess around with humans, so she returns to Goddessland and sends a nice human young lady down to Ozone Heights, New Jersey to take her place) .
The score of If/Then is loaded with material into which Ms. Menzel can place her considerable voice and her capable acting chops. Songs are not listed in the program, which is most unusual but I think that’s because they are more musicalized dialog than they are songs. Elizabeth has a number of powerful anthems, that new sort of musical number that wanders around all over the place until it reaches for the skies and ends with a final note that blasts until it morphs into a vibrato finish. Guaranteed, built in request for screaming roar of approval from the female claque, but for the rest of us a bit of a challenge unless we remembered to bring our ear plugs. Josh, the soldier, was played at my performance by understudy Charles Hagerty, as James Snyder of the first string cast was out. Young Hagerty has ample regional and touring credits; this is his Broadway debut, and he’s excellent – attractive, with a powerful baritone and great honesty as an actor. His was a smooth landing and he added much to the enjoyment of the piece.
La Chanze, Anthony Rapp, Jerry Dixon, Jason Tam lend strong support to Idina Menzel, and Michael Greif’s staging is controlled and inventive. Larry Keigwin’s choreography concerns itself more with movement than with dance, and there were times when I wished he wouldn’t have his ensemble constantly shifting positions to make pretty pictures. Even in the very brief book scenes, characters tended to switch positions every other line. But on the whole the look of the show is easy on the eyes, with romanticized sets and lighting by Mark Wendland and Kenneth Posner. It’s a very delicate and unreal Madison Square Park they’ve created, but hey, who says theatre can’t improve on Mother Nature?
The show seems firmly established as a hit, and I have no problem with that. I’d have liked to become more involved with Ms. Menzel’s Elizabeth/Liz/Beth, I wish I’d had more fun with her and her friends and lovers, but her story became more intriguing as it unraveled, and its second act is by far the better of the two. Result: an interesting near miss that takes a stab at least at bringing us an original story with an original score.
I certainly look forward to the next project from Messrs. Kitt and Yorkey, for they continue to show great promise. Think Kander and Ebb, Adams and Strouse, Jerry Herman, Joe Masteroff, Bock and Harnick, Terrence McNally, Joe Stein, Stephen Sondheim and so many other giants, all in their early musical theatre attempts. All promising, all ultimately delivering fulfillment. I’m certain Kitt and Yorkey will find their way in to that pantheon, hopefully next time.
If/Then is playing at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W 46th ST (between Broadway and 8th), NYC.
Details and tickets